This is the story of Tyler, whose mom died of ovarian cancer while Tyler was a sophomore in college.
Can I just say she was the best person ever and be done with this question? My mom was totally a soccer mom, but the cool kind, not the embarrassing kind. One time, when I was little, I was watching Rocko’s Modern Life on Nickelodeon, she came to watch with me for a minute. It was the episode where Rocko has to give a speech in front of a lot of people and they see that he has a giant piece of spinach between his teeth. My mom started laughing so hard she actually fell off the couch. It was delightful.
My mom threw totally awesome birthday parties and always insisted I pick abstract themes like “nature” and “springtime” and “imagination.” She taught me how to use chopsticks and how to tweeze my eyebrows and once sat me down just to discuss the way I drew hands and how to make them more realistic (we were always a very artsy family).
She was also a Disney fanatic even as an adult, a trait she definitely passed down to all her children.My mom was a stay-at-home mom but in the year or so before she got sick, she started a calligraphy business, doing wedding invitations and place cards. This past winter break, I was going through a box in the garage and found one of her calligraphy notebooks, where she’d copy quotes and names and things to practice each typeface. I opened on a page where she had written, “The time to be happy is now. The Place to be happy is here,” and I totally broke down.
How was your relationship with her?
My mom and I were really close. I was always much more like her than like my dad, so hanging out with her was a bit like hanging out with an older, slightly different version of myself. We always liked to spend our time the same way. We liked interior design and Greek food and musty old bookstores. We used to watch What Not To Wear together and she’d complain her boring khaki’s-and-black-shirt “uniform” but I always liked how she dressed.
When I was in elementary school, sometimes she’d take me to Starbucks in the mornings and get a decaf tall skim latte for herself and steamed milk with vanilla for me and we’d find the comfiest chairs and sit together, reading the newspaper. She’d pass me the comics and save the arts section for herself. I loved these mornings. I felt so grown up and loved spending time with her. Even when she was sick, most of our time spent together consisted of watching game shows and yelling out the answers.
How old were you when you found out she was sick?
We found out my mom was sick the summer after my freshman year of college, so I had turned 19 a few months earlier (my birthday is in April). I have two younger sisters, and they were 17 and 14 at the time.
How long was she sick?
It took 8 months from my mom’s diagnosis to her death.
Since ovarian cancer doesn’t have noticeable symptoms in its early stages, we don’t know exactly when she got sick. She started complaining of bloating and pain in her lower abdomen towards the beginning of the summer of 2008. We took her to several different doctors, and they had a hard time figuring out the source of her pain.
They wavered between thinking it was food poisoning or a gastrointestinal problem or even a broken rib. We had just moved, so we had been schlepping a lot of heavy boxes, and doctors thought she might have just overexerted herself. I had an internship that summer, and my dad picked me up one day, and while we were in the car, he got a call from the doctor recommending an oncologist. Shortly after that, she was diagnosed with stage 4 ovarian cancer, “the kind that you don’t want to have,” according to the doctor. They said she had three years to live.
A few months after her diagnosis, she had to go in for some surgery, and, as part of the pre-surgery process, they gave her a pregnancy test. Strangely, it came out positive. After some more work, the doctors decided that she actually had choreocarcinoma, which is a very rare cancer of the placenta that is curable in stage 4. We were all ecstatic.
Through the next several months, doctors started to think that maybe she didn’t have choreocarcinoma. Even now, they’re still not sure exactly what kind of cancer she had, which is really frustrating. When your mom dies, you want to know why.
Eventually, chemotherapy, radiation, and other drugs had reduced her to someone that that wasn’t my mom anymore. She was bald, weak, and thin, and a steroid medication she took made her face swell so her cheeks were puffy and sagging. She had severe neuropathy (like pins and needles that don’t go away) in her hands and feet, so she couldn’t even hold a pen. She walked with a walker and needed an oxygen machine to breathe. Her mind was fuzzy and she’d say things that didn’t make sense. I kept feeling like saying, “Mom! Snap out of it!”
My mom died two days after I got home for spring break my sophomore year of college. They say moms always wait for all their babies and it really seemed like my mom did just that. She had been in steady decline but didn’t die until all her children were in town.
Tell us about life immediately following her death.
We are Jewish, so the post-death process is very regimented. Jews have the funeral as soon as possible after the death and then they follow that with a shiva – basically a week-long period where family and friends visit the mourners and celebrate the life of the person who died with lots of food. Since my mom died in Florida and all of our family is from Chicago, we flew back to Chicago for the funeral and shiva.
Shopping for black clothes for the funeral was really weird. One of my sisters and I went to Forever 21, and we had to flick through the racks of cheerful, colorful stuff to find the few black items they had. What are you supposed to say when the salesperson asks you if you’re looking for anything in particular? It was bizarre.
The funeral was so surreal. I’m really emotionally guarded, so the funeral was the first time I had ever cried in front of people that weren’t my parents or sisters. It was liberating, in a way. The funeral itself went… well? I don’t know if that’s the right word. Lots of people showed up – so many that the funeral director had to house a group of them in another room with a TV showing the service. The eulogies were the perfect combination of sweet and sad. Some were funny, and the laughter felt right.
The shiva was so effective. It was like being swallowed up in a warm hug for a whole week. We stayed in my aunt’s (my mom’s older sister’s) house while family and friends came with delicious food. We made sure to include all of my mom’s favorite foods there, so we had takeout from Noodles & Company and Pita Inn.
I spent most of the shiva hanging out with my cousins, laughing and playing board games and working on a gigantic family tree. The nicest times were when my mom’s childhood friends came with stories about her I’d never heard before. The worst was when an old friend’s father filled a lull in conversation by saying, “Wow, I just can’t believe she’s gone!”
How did you cope with her death?
I laugh! A lot! My sisters and I make jokes that make other people who aren’t in our situation very uncomfortable, but seriously, laughter is great medicine. I’m also an aspiring screenwriter, so I got a lot of inspiration for my writing from all that I’ve gone through. I did National Novel Writing Month last November, and I wrote a first draft of a memoir about my experiences. I also keep a blog that I started for a poetry class after I got back from the shiva. Writing, for me, is really cathartic.
In general, I’m unaffected by the overly death-oriented stuff. I don’t mind talking about my mom and I don’t immediately tear up when anyone mentions death. The things that get me the most are little things: hearing someone say a phrase she always said or smelling someone wearing her same perfume or seeing a mom talking to or playing with a little kid.
Looking at photos of her was really difficult for a while. Our answering machine message is still her voice, and sometimes when I’m at school and I call home, I forget and all of a sudden she’s on the phone with me. I also dream about her all the time. Sometimes, in the dream, I know she died, but other times it’s like she never got sick.
Oh, and right after she died, I was petrified of waking up in the morning and forgetting she died and having to remember all over again, so I got in the habit of saying, in my head, every morning as soon as I woke up, “Mom is dead.” Sounds weird, but it was really helpful at the time.
How did you deal with friends/school/work while you were mourning?
I missed the first few weeks after spring break, and I was able to get caught up quite easily. Teachers are very agreeable when you have something so serious as an excuse. When my mom was still sick, she always encouraged me to use her illness as an excuse as often as I needed.
Still, concentrating in class was harder than usual. My friends were great. They were extra extra nice to me when I got back from school, and two of them even brought me a picture of my mom and me that they had framed. The only hard thing with friends was that, lots of times, when I mentioned my mom offhand, I could sense them getting uncomfortable. Which is totally understandable! But it was still difficult – I didn’t want them treating me or my mom any differently than they had before she got sick.
Has her death affected your relationship with your dad or siblings?
We were always a very close-knit family, and we still are. My sisters and I band together and make stupid dead-mom jokes and my dad cries at inopportune moments, but it’s all okay because we’re human. I occasionally feel pangs of guilt that I had my mom for longer than either of my sisters did, but they never complain about it.
Since my mom and dad were so different from one another, whenever my dad does something particularly Dad-ish now, it tends to frustrate me because it just emphasizes the fact that my mom is gone. Overall, though, we’re really doing well. We’re currently trying to spread the word about ovarian cancer. Breast cancer is
Overall, though, we’re really doing well. We’re currently trying to spread the word about ovarian cancer. Breast cancer is the female cancer that gets all the press, but since ovarian cancer doesn’t manifest itself in symptoms until it’s too late (usually), we really want people to know to get their ovaries checked out.
What advice would you give to other young people dealing with a death in the family? Advice for friends of those experiencing grief?
For people who have friends experiencing grief, don’t treat your mourning friends too differently from how you treated them before the death. Maybe be a little more understanding, but don’t expect your friendship to change too much. When they bring up their loved one in conversation, don’t try to change the subject. If they make jokes about their situation, it’s okay to laugh. Also, don’t ever complain about your loved one who is still alive. Whenever my friends complain about their moms, I want to slap them.
For people with a death in their own families, you should know that there is no right way to grieve. Don’t look to anyone else for how you’re supposed to feel or what you’re supposed to do. Do whatever makes you feel good. Eat junk food or watch really funny movies or scream into a pillow. Don’t ever be afraid to laugh
Don’t ever be afraid to laugh about the ridiculousness of it all. People might make you feel like laughing about death is wrong or shameful, but if it helps you cope, there’s no harm in it. If you ever feel hopeless, consider getting seeing a therapist. It might not feel like there’s a light at the end of the tunnel, but there is! Trust me!
Have any of you lost a parent or a loved one? Any questions for Tyler?